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What Biden needs to do in this year's State of the Union speech

President Biden gave his first State of the Union address on March 1, 2022. On Tuesday, he is set to give his second.
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President Biden gave his first State of the Union address on March 1, 2022. On Tuesday, he is set to give his second.

President Biden is heading to the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday evening to deliver his State of the Union address for 2023. But his message — and his performance — will be closely watched for what they say about 2024, and what's expected to be his second presidential race.

Biden has not yet officially announced whether he has decided to make good on what he has said is his intention to run for a second term in office. But he's expected to do so in the near future. The State of the Union speech, and its large broadcast audience, is an opportunity to show what he plans to run on — and that he has what it takes for a grueling reelect race as the oldest presidential candidate in history.

"This speech is undoubtedly being seen in the White House as part of the reelect effort," said Peter Wehner, who wrote speeches for former President George W. Bush. "And what that means is this is a kind of speech that begins to lay out the broad contours of a reelection campaign."

President George W. Bush shakes hands with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as Bush makes his way into the House chamber for his 2004 State of the Union address.
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President George W. Bush shakes hands with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as Bush makes his way into the House chamber for his 2004 State of the Union address.

Biden is expected to draw a contrast with Republicans

Presidents of both parties have used this annual speech to spell out their agenda, and express — sometimes indirectly — how that agenda differs from the opposition.

"State of the Unions at their very best are often eloquent laundry lists, but they're also political speeches," said Michael Waldman, lead speechwriter on four of former President Bill Clinton's State of the Union addresses.

"And it's a very political season and people are already running for president ... and so you're going to hear, I'm sure, a contrast between Democrats and Republicans play out on the screen in this speech," Waldman said.

It will be Biden's first speech to a Congress where Republicans now control the House of Representatives, and gives him the chance to articulate an agenda that draws battle lines with the Republican Party — particularly on the debt ceiling showdown.

But former presidential speechwriters say there's a careful balance to strike.

"You're speaking to an audience that includes the opposition party as well as your own, and you don't want to, as a president, come across as petty or divisive," said Wehner.

President Bill Clinton along with Vice President Al Gore  and Speaker Newt Gingrich applaud World War II veteran Jack Lucas during the 1995 State of the Union address.
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AFP via Getty Images
President Bill Clinton along with Vice President Al Gore and Speaker Newt Gingrich applaud World War II veteran Jack Lucas during the 1995 State of the Union address.

Clinton used a similar opportunity to deal with questions about his electability

In his 1995 State of the Union, Clinton was facing a newly elected Republican Congress after the Republican Revolution in the 1994 midterms, in which the GOP took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.

Pundits had interpreted the midterm elections as a clear rebuke of Clinton, and people questioned whether he had any political future.

But Clinton found opportunity in that moment of political peril, his former speechwriters said. He tried to use charm to show he could reach across the aisle.

"Bill Clinton, he always had the hand out," said Carolyn Curiel, one of his speechwriters. "There is nobody he didn't want to befriend, even those who had done him harm in politics and otherwise. And if he took the stage with any feelings that were bad, he let them go. Because you need as many people in the room as possible to think, 'He's not a bad guy. Maybe I can work with him.' "

But that speech wasn't just about convincing the politicians in the room that Clinton had a political future: it was also about answering lingering questions from the public after that midterm shellacking.

"He reminded people of what they liked about his policies and about him," Waldman said. "What people wanted to see from him was that he was still standing ... part of what Clinton had to do in that speech was show that he still had his good humor."

Democrats didn't face a huge political rebuke last November — they did better than expected in the midterms.

Biden faces a different lingering question — his age, said multiple former speechwriters, both Republican and Democrat.

"He would be 86 at the end of the second term. It's an issue that's going to be it's going to be on people's minds," said Waldman. "And he will want to use this a forum to show he's vigorous, he's commanding."

Then-Vice President Biden and House Speaker John Boehner during President Barack Obama's 2011 State of the Union address.
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AFP via Getty Images
Then-Vice President Biden and House Speaker John Boehner during President Barack Obama's 2011 State of the Union address.

Biden will try to show life, and politics, can get back to normal

There are certain traditions in every State of the Union — the platitudes, the pleas to end partisanship, the overtures to work across the aisle — and the ritual of graciously greeting the newly elected House speaker.

"Biden believes in the rituals of democracy," said Waldman. The formalities of the State of the Union are a part of that.

"It's important in Biden's longer-term project of both being normal and in sort of restoring the soul of the country, as he puts it, by reconnecting people to their kind of civic rituals," he said.

Biden, like his predecessors, will likely speak about trying to find unity, but there are limitations in working across party lines in what has become a hyperpartisan climate, said Cody Keenan, a speechwriter for former President Barack Obama.

The new Republican majority in the House has made clear it intends to pursue multiples investigations into the Biden administration. The discovery of classified documents in Biden's personal files add to the tensions.

Still, Keenan said Biden's speech has an important function: it can dare Republicans to oppose potentially popular policy ideas, while also articulating a future agenda for Democrats.

"It's his biggest audience of the year to lay down a marker so that people really know what's at stake," Keenan said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

President Biden's first State of the Union address was March 01, 2022. He delivers his second on Tuesday.
Pool / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Biden's first State of the Union address was March 1, 2022. He delivers his second on Tuesday.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.